The most unpredictable government ever

The most unpredictable government ever

In 2013 Portland outlined seven possible outcomes of the election. All remain possible, though some of course are more likely than others, and the shape of the next government remains more unpredictable than ever before. What we do know is that no one will be sweeping into Downing Street on the crest of huge public popularity with a clear mandate for government. The election won’t have a ‘winner’ but more of a ‘lucky runner-up’. The party sitting on the government benches could have as little as 33% of the vote. The electoral arithmetic requires about 320 seats to form a bare majority (once Sinn Fein non-attendance and speaker and deputy speakers are taken into account) and 326 for an absolute majority (of one). The arithmetic of building a majority by coalition is made easier in the sense that each seat added to the governing side by the junior party reduces the size of the opposition by one as well. The complicating factor this year is the status of Scottish, Welsh or Northern Ireland parties. In the past it may have been straightforward to do a deal which propped up a majority. Now, in the wake of the Scottish referendum and with English votes for English laws on the horizon, the formation of a government with a substantial number of non-English MPs will be more problematic. Ultimately, electoral arithmetic might well trump ill-defi ned theories of legitimacy, but at the very least ministers will find themselves with more questions to answer than in the past.

Outright Labour win

This remains the most likely ‘clean result’, requiring no negotiation with other parties. To deliver a workable majority Labour government, Ed Miliband probably only needs around 33-35% of the vote. This implies a steady result in Scotland in the face of SNP pressure and gains from the Liberal Democrats and the Conservatives, to add at least 70 MPs to the total. Questions of legitimacy will though remain in the air. It is plausible that the result could be achieved on a record-low postwar share of the popular vote for the majority governing party (Tony Blair in 2005 managed 35.2%, while at least polling higher than Michael Howard’s Conservatives). Although no doubt Labour ministers would put on a thick-skinned performance, their mandate to govern would be under constant scrutiny. This is exacerbated even further by the political mood after the referendum in which the nationalist parties, particularly in Scotland, feel emboldened. And if votes on English laws are restricted to MPs from English constituencies, governing will become a much more complicated affair with the very real possibility that Labour holds a UK majority but only a minority in English constituencies.

Outright Conservative win

To achieve this result, as Portland noted two years ago, David Cameron would need to pull off an unprecedented gain on the share of the vote that took him to power. It is worth remembering that in 2010, the Tories had a 7 point margin of victory over an unpopular Labour Party led by Gordon Brown, yet that was still not enough to win a majority. Indeed, since January 2011 there have been over 1,500 polls and just five have shown a Conservative lead of more than two points. While exact calculations for how far ahead the Tories need to be are made ever more difficult by UKIP, the SNP and others, David Cameron’s party has not had anywhere near large enough a lead needed for a majority since the postelection honeymoon in 2010. He and his party would need a net gain of 23 seats coming from the Liberal Democrats, Labour and even UKIP, all the while having to hold off both the UKIP challenge in the dozen or so seats which they are likely to be competitive, and Labour’s advances in a number of marginal seats. All of which sounds extremely challenging but could just conceivably be achieved if the Labour vote collapses and the Tory offer seems particularly compelling. Another financial shock, for instance, might just work for the party better trusted to look after the economy.

Labour/Liberal Democrat coalition

If Labour wins thirty or so more seats, to reach 280-290 MPs, it would need a coalition partner with between 40-50 seats for a slim but working majority. Only the most optimistic Liberal Democrats expect such a good result, even with a strong ground campaign in incumbent seats. The difficulty for Lib/Lab enthusiasts is that the aggregate number of seats between the two parties will remain fairly steady, and this might leave their combined MPs short of a majority. In other words, the closer Labour gets to a majority, the more it has to be assumed it enfeebles the Lib Dems. The signs for the Liberal Democrats are quite poor in all respects. Looking overseas to countries with more experience of coalitions paints a depressing picture for the Liberal Democrats as junior coalition parties tend to be chewed up and spat out by their senior partners. The nearest parallel can be found in Germany. In 2009, the FDP (Germany’s Lib Dem equivalent) won a strong 14.6% of the national vote, and went into coalition with Chancellor Angela Merkel’s larger Christian Democratic Union (a centre-right party). At the following election, their share fell nearly ten points to just 4.8%, despite Merkel’s government being relatively popular.

Conservative/Liberal Democrat coalition

A renewed coalition between the two current governing parties is conceivable even if, in the face of a small Labour revival and UKIP threat (plus possibly a few Scottish Lib Dems gave way to the SNP), they lost an aggregate 32 seats. In theory, the Liberal Democrats could make an offer to either party – if all else remained broadly the same, 50 Lib Dems could side with, say, 280 Labour or 280 Conservatives to form a majority. But such a fine balance relies on the Lib Dem holding on to almost all of their current seats, or the majority of Lib Dem losses to be to the Conservatives. Traditionally in these circumstances it would fall to the Ulster Unionists (and now the DUP) to provide enough support in Parliament. The Conservatives have a better chance of such a deal passing off without huge controversy in that they will almost certainly have an English majority.

The grand coalition

Indeed, the Scottish, Welsh and Northern Ireland parties could well take on greater significance in the next parliament. Should Labour fall just short of an overall majority (say around the 310 mark) it could find enough common cause with the SNP, Plaid and maybe a couple of likeminded others to cobble together a coalition, if nothing else as a means of pressure on the Lib Dems in negotiations. The price the nationalists would extract for such a deal would be hefty (another referendum?), and the stability of the ensuing government would be undermined by questions of legitimacy in England. An outcome we largely discounted in 2013 was that of one UKIP MP (the existence of which at that time seemed unlikely) joining the Conservatives in a broad right coalition. Should UKIP surge to half a dozen or more MPs in 2015 and win traditional Labour seats, they could just about take the Tories over the line, at least on a confidence and supply basis. But again, their demands for such a deal may well be high.

Minority Labour or Minority Conservative

Lasting minority governments have very little precedent in the UK, although the SNP managed a term of minority government in Scotland from 2007–2011 (with only 36% of seats). It is feasible that in the event of a decent Labour or Conservative showing at the election, say 310 seats, they could rely on a degree of consensus or a rolling programme of issue-based ad hoc coalitions to maintain a functioning executive. The difficulty of course would be getting anything done except the bare minimum. Governing a minority would require the Prime Minister to exert total control over his or her Parliamentary party (almost inconceivable in the case of the Conservatives, and unlikely in the case of Labour), while knowing that every vote was still on a knife edge and the Prime Minister and Foreign Secretary might be required in the lobby on any given day. A return to the 1970s where sick MPs had to be wheeled into the House to vote would bring significant and unwelcome uncertainty. With the Prime Minister in 2015 facing several more years of difficult decisions over spending and public services, while having been elected on an ambitious policy programme, a Parliamentary minority is an incredibly weak platform for government. This therefore seems a sub-optimal solution, but could be one that the larger party declares as an option in pursuit of a better deal with a coalition partner. The one circumstance in which this might change is a minority overall but a majority in England, coupled with a new convention barring MPs from constituencies outside England from voting on English affairs. Such a circumstance is not impossible for the Conservatives to pull off.

Conclusion

While we do not know which scenario we will see as a result of the General Election, it is clear that the next government will not have an easy ride. Whether it is in coalition and keeping partners happy while managing their own party or juggling the difference between their leads in the UK and England, the Prime Minister will not only have to oversee the implementation of further significant cuts but also try and keep their government together. No easy task, made more difficult by an uninspiring victory which most likely faces the ‘winner’.

“There’s no point asking experts…no one knows what’s going to happen…to predict the next general election, you may as well play pin the tail on the donkey” – Nigel Farage